WASHINGTON (November 13, 1998) -- Lucas Benitez, a 22-year-old farmworker organizer, is the first winner of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development's Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. The announcement was made today by CCHD Executive Director Rev. Robert J. Vitillo.
The award, to be presented here November 15, recognizes young Catholic leaders who demonstrate a commitment to putting the Church's social teaching into action. Father Vitillo said, "We wanted to recognize a Catholic young adult who demonstrates outstanding leadership skills and experience in either parish social work or a CCHD-funded community group, who shows potential for continuing leadership and is committed to the CCHD values of participation, option for the poor and solidarity building. Mr. Benitez is an outstanding choice, who has already accomplished a great deal to promote social justice."
Mr. Benitez, a community organizer at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Florida, immigrated from Mexico as a teenager to help support his parents and five siblings by picking fruit for growers throughout the South and along the East Coast. He became active in the farmworker community through meetings of the Southwest Florida Farmworker Project. This CCHD-funded project helped Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian low-wage jobholders bridge ethnic differences to work together and to improve conditions for all of the workers.
Mr. Benitez, a gifted public speaker, helped spearhead a local campaign to raise the federal minimum wage and in November, 1995, he was one of the leaders of the first-ever general strike in Immokalee. The five-day effort turned back a wage cut planned by local tomato growers. Mr. Benitez then helped form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a CCHD-funded community organization whose staff and board are comprised of low-wage workers. The Coalition now has some 800 members who participate in a program of community education, leadership training, organizing and labor rights action.
Earlier this year, Mr. Benitez was the spokesman for a six-person, 30-day hunger strike mounted to persuade tomato growers to give workers their first raise in 20 years. In nominating Mr. Benitez for the award, Maria Teresa Gaston, then-CCHD Director for the diocese of Venice said, "during this unprecedented labor protest, Lucas Benitez, at the age of 22, gave voice to the hunger strikers with grace and dignity and provided an analysis of the community situation with intelligence and commitment. At the same time, he kept the farmworker community informed and participating in the struggle for a decent wage through nighttime meetings in the labor camps."
Ms. Gaston said that while many workers leave farm work when they find a better job, Mr. Benitez has chosen to stay and try to change an unjust system. "He often says, 'I don't want to leave farm work only to have others end up suffering. We must change the conditions of this work, just as people struggled to change the conditions of other jobs in the past, so that in this honest work, one can also earn a just wage, live in decent housing and be treated with dignity and respect."
Bishop John J. Nevins of Venice, Florida, welcomed the announcement of the award saying, "Mr. Benitez is a model for people working for social justice." Father Robert Tabbert, pastor at St. Ann Parish in Naples, Florida, who has worked closely with the Coalition, said, "The award given to Mr. Benitez is a tremendous statement about a man of high integrity. He calls for dialogue and reconciliation with the growers in a dignified way and he is never antagonistic."
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, founded in 1970 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, is the nation's largest private funder of projects that empower the poor and work to eliminate poverty and injustice. In 28 years, it has distributed grants of $250 million to 3500 self-help projects nationwide. "In naming our new leadership award program in memory of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin," said Father Vitillo, "we are recognizing his role in nurturing the vision of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and helping to shepherd it through its first years."
There were nine runners-up for the first Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. Father Vitillo said, "We were so impressed by the caliber of the nominees that we are naming nine runners-up, all of whom have tremendous potential as young Catholic leaders committed to the Gospel call for solidarity with the poor."
The runners-up, and the dioceses in which they were nominated, are: Jessica Bartel, Helena, MT; Mat Despard, Raleigh, NC; Lupe Nu¤o, Oakland, Ca; Rich Nymoen, St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN; Tara Parrish, Baton Rouge, LA; Rebecca Jae Saldana, Seattle, WA; Veronica Terriquez, Oakland, CA; Jaimee Trobough, Omaha, NE and a trio of Christine Hurley, Felicia Johnson and Christine Keys, Fort Wayne-South Bend, IN.
The presentation of the Cardinal Bernardin CCHD New Leadership Award will be made by Bishop Ricardo RamĦrez, Chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference's Committee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The 29th Annual Appeal of the CCHD, with the theme, "Helping People Help Themselves," is scheduled November 21-22 in Catholic parishes throughout the country.